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After Initial Doubts on Resolution, Consensus Emerging on Lebanon

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An international consensus is emerging that Lebanon is an abused party that needs to be delicately drawn away from Iran’s influence. The differences between Israel, the United States, Europe and Lebanon that dogged efforts to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended this summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war, are dissipating, diplomats say.

Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, arrives in Washington on Wednesday for talks with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, and Stephen Hadley, the White House’s national security adviser.

Lebanon tops Livni’s agenda, along with Iran’s nuclear program, officials said. Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s opposition Likud Party, and two top aides to Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, were in Washington last week making the same case.

Of primary importance is the return of two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah in a July 12 cross-border raid started the war. After that, Israel wants assurances that Lebanon’s border with Syria will be closed to keep Iran from re-arming Hezbollah, its proxy.

That hurdle appeared to be at least partly cleared last week when France, which will head the reconstituted interim force in Lebanon, said it had a mandate to help maintain an arms embargo.

“At the Lebanese government’s request, UNIFIL will also have to assist in the effective organization of an embargo on arms deliveries through controls carried out on the country’s borders,” France’s foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, told the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Plans to expand UNIFIL from its current hapless form to a viable 15,000-strong international force to police the peace also are coming together, contrary to initial skepticism that the vagueness of the Security Council mandate would discourage nations from joining the force.

Rice made numerous phone calls last week to leaders of Israel, Lebanon and Europe to make sure Israeli troops can withdraw from Lebanon and are replaced by the Lebanese army and the international force, according to Rice’s spokesman, Sean McCormack. She was especially forceful about Israel ending its sea and air embargo of Lebanon, which it did by the weekend.

“We said that we believed that properly implemented, effectively implemented, this resolution would not return us to the status quo ante, that it would improve the situation,” McCormack said. “Secretary Rice has followed through on that.”

Another sign that Israel is eager to reinforce Lebanon’s hand is Olmert’s reported willingness to consider a handover of the tiny Shebaa Farms area of the Golan Heights if the cease-fire holds.

Lebanon suddenly began claiming the area in 2000 after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon and withdrew to U.N.-certified lines. The United Nations checked the Lebanese claim and found it baseless.

Israel captured the area from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The United Nations ruled that the area is Syrian, and its status should be resolved between Israel and Syria.

Despite the U.N. ruling, Hezbollah used Israel’s presence in the Shebaa Farms as a pretext to continue attacking Israel, a posture that allowed it maintain arms — and undermine efforts to shore up Lebanon’s government.

Israel’s friends in Congress are backing away from earlier threats to withhold assistance from Lebanon until it provides assurances that the borders with Syria are secure and that Hezbollah is disarmed. Some legislators already are pressing hard for assistance.

“One of the most important elements of establishing peace is initiating reconstruction efforts throughout southern Lebanon immediately,” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who is Jewish, said Tuesday to a delegation from the Arab American Institute. “The U.S. government must be fully engaged in that effort.”

Israel has joined the Bush administration in calling for the immediate disbursement of assistance to Lebanon to counter the influence of Hezbollah, which is flush with Iranian cash that it’s using to rebuild the country’s South.

Netanyahu, who was maintaining the solidarity with the government that characterized much of the Israeli political establishment during the war, said containing Hezbollah was key to containing Iran and the potential nuclear threat the Islamic republic poses to the region and beyond.

“Hezbollah is Iran’s advance force,” he said.

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